On a recent fall evening in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood, Emmy Rossum appeared in the role of a teapot. Her stage? “Shameless” co-star Joan Cusack’s living room. And her audience? Her fellow castmates. The tight-knit group was playing charades — one way they unwind after long days of filming in Chicago.
“I picked ‘Harry Potter,’ ” she says. “So I was trying to figure out how to do some kind of pun on the words ‘hair’ and ‘teapot.’ ” The cast of the Showtime hit (which debuted its third season on Jan. 13) often gathers at Cusack’s to discuss one another’s personal lives, dole out advice and let their charades games get competitive. “Jeremy Allen White’s team wins every time. I never win, and Bill [William H. Macy] never wins,” Rossum laughs. “I think the other teams are cheating. But I play a very honest charades game.”
Rossum takes a similarly forthright approach to her life. The 26-year-old actress and singer has carved out a remarkably successful career by trusting her instincts, rather than allowing handlers to steer her. “I go with my gut,” she says. “Which generally serves me pretty well.”
The preternaturally talented Rossum began performing at the age of 7 in the Metropolitan Opera Children’s Chorus, sharing the stage with the likes of Luciano Pavarotti, and landed her first movie role at 13 as an Appalachian orphan in the indie film “Songcatcher.” Her artistic integrity had already begun to assert itself. “I was a theater geek who loved opera, and wasn’t into ’N Sync or the Backstreet Boys,” she says. “But I owned my weirdness.”
That confidence continued to propel her career choices. Rossum found stardom in her teens with high-profile roles as Sean Penn’s daughter in “Mystic River,” Jake Gyllenhaal’s love interest in “The Day After Tomorrow” and the lead in “Phantom of the Opera.” In 2013, Rossum will star in both “Beautiful Creatures,” a supernatural, Southern-gothic romance based on the popular novel of the same name, and “You’re Not You,” in which she plays a self-involved college student who learns life lessons from a terminally ill woman played by Hilary Swank.
And as if she weren’t busy enough, on Jan. 29 another of Rossum’s labors of love will come to fruition: an album titled “Sentimental Journey.” It’s Rossum’s third record (her second was an EP of Christmas songs), but it’s the first that she “really wanted to make.” She looks back on her 2007 debut, “Inside Out,” fondly, but admits that there were “a lot of cooks in the kitchen, which can cloud your judgment.”
This time around, Rossum wanted to create the record on her own terms. So she funded it herself and planned on simply releasing it digitally. “I thought, if I could make it by myself, there’d be only me to blame if it didn’t work out,” she says. But after she’d cut the album, Warner Bros. asked to distribute it. The final product is a collection of covers of standards and classics spanning the 1920s to the 1960s, including the Andrews Sisters’ “Apple Blossom Time” and Frank Sinatra’s “Summer Wind.”
It’s an eclectic collection, which aligns with Rossum’s personal taste. “I like opera and old-school music and that’s just kind of who I am,” says Rossum. “People are gonna get it and that’s cool, or think I’m a freak, and that’s cool, too.”
Emmy Rossum and Tyler Jacob Moore (her reported off-screen love interest) in “Shameless.”
Rossum takes similar risks on screen. On “Shameless,” a gritty dark comedy set in Chicago’s South Side, she plays Fiona, a brash 20-something whose alcoholic, absentee father has forced her to become the de facto matriarch of her raucous siblings. Rossum is regularly naked on the show, which has led to plenty of press — even HBO’s “Girls” creator Lena Dunham has weighed in, complaining to Bill Simmons last year that the media refer to Dunham as “brave” for stripping on screen, but don’t say the same of Rossum because she’s got a “perfect butt.”
Rossum laughs at the notion. “I don’t have a perfect butt,” she protests. The idea that stripping for the camera constitutes courage also puzzles her. “I don’t think it’s brave to take off your clothes. I think it’s brave to be emotionally bare,” she says. “I think it’s brave to play unlikable, and I think it’s brave to put on prosthetics and make yourself ugly. I think it’s brave to be vulgar. Whether Lena and I are taking our clothes off on cable is of no consequence. We’re just trying to tell stories. I love her on ‘Girls,’ and she clearly appreciates my bottom as well. But it’s just your body. It doesn’t matter.”
Between scenes, though, Rossum is required to tackle some out-of-the ordinary situations. The show’s hectic production schedule (they shoot 11 pages of script per day) often forces her to change outfits in strangers’ bathrooms, church basements and even on the L. She recalls one train pulling up to a crowded platform as she wrestled with her costume. “I was fully changing clothes, ducking down behind the seats, trying not to be seen.”
But when she happens to be spotted, Chicago fans speak to her like she’s actually Fiona. “They’ll say, ‘You’re doing such a good job raising those kids!’ ” she laughs. “I love it. It means I’m doing my job.” One group of young fans even asked her to disrobe — in response, Rossum “channeled Fiona,” insisting that the boys “go home and do their homework.” For the most part, though, she appreciates how calm Chicagoans are in her presence compared to fans in Los Angeles or New York. “Chicago has that cool sensibility. Nobody really cares. It makes me feel like a person on the street, which is a great feeling.”
When it comes to her personal life, Rossum is more guarded. She’s vague about her reported romance with co-star Tyler Jacob Moore, but does admit, “Acting is an emotionally bare profession. You’re trusting the person that you’re acting opposite to be gentle with you. That can sometimes lead to other feelings.”
Avoiding the public eye is something Rossum will surely find even harder as her career develops — though she’s not making any concrete plans. “I just go where the wind takes me and follow whatever feels right.” She says she’d love to be in a Broadway musical someday and wants to work with more “cool chicks,” such as Tilda Swinton, Cate Blanchett, Emma Stone and Solange Knowles — women who are, as Rossum describes it, “unafraid to break rules.”
A fitting description for Rossum herself.
Emmy around town
“Everyone group texts all the time. We all know what everyone else is doing, what they’re working on, what they like to eat,” says Rossum of her “Shameless” castmates. “We spend a lot of time together, so we have this symbiosis.” When they’re not on set, here’s how the hard-working crew blows off steam:
Eating: “All of my activities in Chicago are centered around food,” says Rossum. “I just want to eat everything.” The cast often shoots in colder weather, and when looking for heartier fare, burger joint 25 Degrees (726 N. Clark, left) is a favorite. “They’re the best burgers I’ve ever had. We order loads of them and get them delivered to set when we’re late-night shooting. I dream about the sweet potato fries.”
Crushing on athletes: “Shanola [Hampton] is a massive football fan, and I love basketball, so we end up going to a lot of sporting events,” she says. “[Former Bull] Kyle Korver (left) is really cute. He’s got really good hair. A little Bieber-esque, but I’m willing to move past that.” And the Bears? “They’re all too big for me,” laughs Rossum. “They’re intimidating. Though Brian Urlacher is a beautiful, beautiful man.”
Drinking: “We’ll end up at Redhead Piano Bar [16. W. Ontario] super late,” she says. “That’s actually happened a couple of times.”
Shopping: Rossum counts Vintage Underground (1824 W. North) and Dovetail (1452 W. Chicago) among her preferred haunts. She also stops by co-star Joan Cusack’s Gold Coast boutique, Judy Maxwell (left, 1151 N. State). “I buy lots of funny knickknacks there,” she says. “It’s like entering the brain of Joan Cusack. Creative overload, weird, happy.”
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